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Master of all trades: the rise of master brand marketing

You may have noticed a few adverts on TV recently that don’t really seem to be advertising anything at all. McDonalds isn’t advertising burgers, Kellogg’s isn’t advertising cornflakes, Lloyds isn’t advertising current accounts and Coca Cola isn’t advertising its specially-patented cavity juice. More and more frequently what these brands are advertising is themselves.

Bringing out the big guns

Take this latest “Good Times” ad from Maccy D’s. Sure, there are happy meals, boxes of fries and burgers dotted strategically throughout, but the ad is not about any one product per se, rather it’s an overarching brand pitch to align the international burger evangelists with an emotive message. It’s a strategy we’re seeing more and more of, and a closer look reveals some interesting consequences for what it means for the industry.

First off, it’s important to note that there are only certain brands that can pull this off. I.e. not the two-man plumbing outfit from Widnes. It’s the big boys, the global brands, the companies with an instant, immediate, international appeal. A master brand campaign is attractive to these kinds of companies for the simple reason that the majority of people already know who and what they are. People know what a coke or a Big Mac is going to taste like, and don’t need to be sold on it. People either like the product or they don’t, and their minds are unlikely to change.

What can change however are people’s perceptions of the company as a whole. That’s why brands are keen to align themselves with values and ideals that customers can engage with on an emotional level. I may know what a coke tastes like, but I can be made to feel differently about the company, depending on what it is they say they stand for.

Efficiency and retention

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However, there’s more to it than wishy-washy touchy-feely emotional stuff. Some seriously weighty business decisions sit behind a master brand strategy, particularly because it’s efficient not only for awareness but also in terms of marketing spend. Basically, advertisers can get more bang for their buck, boosting exposure in a single media channel by spreading it across multiple brands and products.

Master brands also work hard to retain existing customers. As Denise Lee Yohn writes in the Harvard Business Review, “instead of customers abandoning the brand altogether when they “graduate” out of a product, they are more likely to shift to another offering in the master brand portfolio.” I.e: I may have gone off full-fat coke, but I might try that nice looking green can life one because I’m trying to impress my new vegan girlfriend.

Simplicity and market domination

Master brands are also simple. You don’t need to advertise a dizzying array of product ranges and newfangled inventions, you just tout the brand itself. That means when people get to the shelves, streets or ‘sites and see that familiar brand logo, they recognise what they see and can figure it out from there. Consumers have a limited capacity to be able to absorb all the different brand variations, so when it comes to a 30-second TV slot it’s probably worth not even bothering.

Also, and perhaps a little more nefariously, a company big enough to do a master brand strategy will edge out its competition every time. For the smaller competitor, the company with a similar product, service or idea, it becomes that bit harder to establish a unique identity. Smaller brands are therefore forced to stick to product-led messaging, and are steamrollered into focussing on what makes their product different from the huge, global, mega-brand everyone knows about. Unfortunately, this can sometimes make it seem like their advertising is sheepishly accounting for why they’re not Coca-Cola or McDonalds or Apple rather than singing their own praises.

Boom to bust, brand to benefits

However, as with most things marketing, this shift to master brand strategy will likely cycle back to product-led messaging sometime in the near future. The big brands will focus on themselves for a while, but will almost certainly swing back to a more individualistic approach.

As such, when brands decide it’s time for something new (or, if we’re being unkind, something old dressed up as something new), it’s up for agencies and marketeers to respond in kind. It’s up to us to figure out what a brand needs and why, which is what makes remembering there’s no such thing as a “perfect” piece of marketing important. There is only what is correct for the audience or market of the time. Our challenge now then is to identify exactly when it’s time to go big and when it’s time to think small.

Alastair Dickie

30th June 2016